Yeah, but can he or she do it on dirt?
Between now and Kentucky Derby Day, May 2, this might be the most repeated statement uttered by racing pundits and your fellow handicapping brethren.
And it's also one of the most overblown.
Of course an all-weather track performer will have a new obstacle racing first time on natural dirt. Maybe that's the only issue to consider in a $20,000 claiming race where a full field of veterans make their 20th career starts, and the other competitors all are seasoned at today's venue, distance and class. But what makes the Kentucky Derby inherently unique, and so darned difficult to handicap, is that it is not like any other horserace held on American soil whether you're talking dirt, turf or recycled tires and jelly cables.
The old saying around the racetrack is that a great horse can take his track with him. Last I checked, it takes a great horse at the very least a great performance to win the Kentucky Derby. We've only truly seen the all-weather surface area on display at the Kentucky Derby in 2007 and 2008; so please, before you embarrass yourself, no historical references as to these runners' successes or failures.
No one short of a fortune teller can claim to know exactly what's going to happen when hoof meets dirt, much less be certain the outcome of a horserace. Despite some claiming such genius, the rest of us who are rooted in our consciences admit we're taking our best educated guesses. We study, analyze, decide and then gamble.
But if you eliminate any Derby contender based solely on one factor, especially a factor that's based on "he' never tried" and not "he already has tried and was unsuccessful," then you will have zero horses left to evaluate. None of the horses have ever run in anything like the Kentucky Derby not even close. It's not that easy to just rule out horses like The Pamplemousse, Pioneerof The Nile and the filly Stardom Bound.
But sit this one out? Hardly.
Let's consider the variables that make choosing your Derby horse so much different than the winner of the fourth race on a Thursday afternoon. I'll go as far as trying to rank the unique factors in order of most difficult to overcome.
Trainers tighten up around the Derby, and while some say they don't change the routine, that's disingenuous. The calendar MAKES them change; they don't have a choice to say "If we don't hit the X stakes, we'll run in the Y." A Derby horse must be flourishing on the first Saturday in May. Many great Florida Derby winners were not; the same can be said for many legendary Travers winners. How a horse is coming up to the big race is the single-most important factor to consider. In my 15 years patrolling the Derby backstretch, I can't recall a single eventual winner who was doing poorly leading up to the race suddenly waking up.
All Derby Week, contenders are expected to walk to and from the track with hundreds of onlookers standing inches from them, working through a maze of people unlike any other week of their lives, just to get to the track to train. There are so many places to come unglued all week that can hamper your preparation, much less your race-day performance once 140,000 strong pop the electricity meter. The race that most prepares a horse for the hoopla of Kentucky Derby Day is the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn, where a jam-packed and enthusiastic crowd is on display to the horses for an extended period of time as the runners are saddled in the infield. But even that can't mimic the week-long barrage of distractions that is Derby Week.
The 20-horse Field
Train perfectly up to the race and handle the pre-race crowd, and then you still have to take your chances with the 20-horse field. Unlike a six-horse or 10-horse line-up in most races, the Derby calls on a horse's athleticism and toughness that can't be measured in most any prep. These are traits that are not demanded in other races, at least to this extent. Being bottled up in a prep means making two runs; being bottled up in the Derby demands a horse make three or four runs. Get bumped in a prep, and it may take a quarter-mile to get your sea legs back under you in the clear. Get bumped in the Derby, and you may never see the clear again. It's not all about racing luck, either. Sure that plays a big part, but you have to be athletic enough agile and push-button acceleration to make your own trip when the deck is stacked against you. Ask Big Brown about overcoming post 20, or ask Street Sense about being push-button enough to make his rail run when it opened.
The Mile And One-Quarter
None of the contenders in the Derby have had any experience at the race's 1 1/4 miles journey. And since stamina has been downplayed in American pedigrees the past few decades, it's impossible to simply look at mom and pop and figure out if sonny boy will get the trip. You really have to study how horses are finishing their preps, in terms of running style, closing fractions, gallop-outs, etc. to get a feel for the distance capabilities. Even then, you're playing Risk. But if a horse simply can't run this far at an elite level, all the other factors in his favor won't matter.
The jockeys weren't too nervous in the Florida Derby; they are in THE Derby. We've seen plenty of big-race riders who have gone a lifetime without winning the big one. We've also seen Derby rookies take the roses. Would you ever believe that John Velazquez, Alex Solis and Corey Nakatani could be 0-36 combined in a race that was won by Stewart Elliott? You can't possibly handicap what kind of ride you're going to get. But there's no doubt it plays a massive factor. Ask Jeremy Rose and Afleet Alex, or Gary Stevens and Point Given. The Hall of Famer still cites that ride as one he'd like to have back.
The 126 Pounds
I know some of you scoff at the impact a few pounds here and there has on a thousand-pound animal's ability to run fast. But weight matters to me at distances like this, in a race where the physical demands are so great. And, besides, don't NASCAR crews spend millions of dollars trying to trim and tighten racecars that weigh much more than this? It's not simply that the 126 pounds being their heaviest career load to bear. You're talking about more "dead" weight in the saddle than in most any other race. Jockeys still battle to make their typical 116 or 118 pounds for other races on the weekend, so you're looking at as much as 10-16 pounds of dead weight carried. Dead weight can't be put in motion and synched with the horse. Hall of Famer Pat Day, who raced at such a low weight because of his slight build, was considered a liability by some in the Derby because of how much extra weight that had to be added to bring him and his mount to 126 pounds.
So when it comes to the importance of the surface, whether you're talking a Derby contender who is a turf horse or an all-weather track performer, the only factor that I would rate surface experience above on the aforementioned list is "The 126 pounds." If you want to eliminate a contender coming off of the Polytrack or Pro-Ride just on that one factor alone, I recommend you be certain that your horse is coming up to the race on a perfect training pattern; is psychologically sound to handle pressure; agile, athletic, well-built and tough enough to handle the traffic; bred and trained to get the distance; and paired with a cool-headed jockey.
Phew. You're right. I guess it is just easier to make silly, blanket statements and dismiss the contenders on short-sighted logic.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is part-owner of the handicapping website Horseplayerpro.com. You can e-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayer.com.